Saturday, May 7, 2011

2011 Pocono Marathon Preview (& a Local 10k Review)

Me at the Pocono Marathon Start (2009)

Next weekend I will toe the line at my third "Run for the Red" Pocono Marathon.  This race has somewhat of a warm spot in my heart as it was my first marathon and still is where I hold my current marathon distance PR.  Back in 2008 when I decided to start running, after not having jogged more than a couple miles since high school cross country, I set my sights high on a marathon.  I decided to start an 18 week training program on January 1st and so began looking for races in early May that were somewhat close to central Pennsylvania.  Pocono sounded like a good first-timer course, and was only a few hours away.  I signed up after my 9th week of training.

...and the rest, as they say, is history.

While my running interests the past few years have shifted more to those trail-related, and while I generally enjoy a fun 50 mile ultra over a pavement pounding race, I still get excited about this Pocono road marathon.  I associate Winter and Spring training with running around the neighborhoods, parks, and gamelands of State College in preparation for this race and the start of the Summer running season.  I sincerely missed this race last year (despite being on an amazing trek along the PCT) and am very glad and eager to be back on the entrants list again.  

Some Course Updates:  
Apparently since 2009, the course has changed a bit....for the better.  Historically, the first 6 miles or so involved a rather unfavorable out-n-back portion.  According the website and course map, this has been changed so that it is more linear now with a slightly better elevation profile too!  Both welcome changes in my book.  Also, this year, there will be official pacers in the race for 5 minute intervals ranging from 3hrs 20 mins, to over 4 hours.

Training and Preparedness:
I have never in my life trained harder for a long distance race than I have for this year's Pocono marathon and upcoming season.  I still used a modified Hal Higdon style training program, but I stepped it up to a 5-day-a-week program (with one day a week cross training and cycling days).  My weekly mileages were on average 5-10 miles higher than any previous program I've used.  My running the past few months has been greatly improved over any previous season or year.  6 weeks ago, I tested out my racing legs by running in my first "official" race of the season part way through my training program.  I went out and ran a local 10 mile road run averaging 7:29 miles.  I could not believe that I ran this fast, but gladly accepted it.  During the past 13 weeks of training, I've never run what I consider to be "race pace" for my weekend long runs.  To me it's more important to run the miles, not the times.  Yet, with that said, I comfortably ran my 22 mile peak week long run two weeks ago averaging 8:25 miles.  This is the same pace that I PR'd at the Pocono Marathon two years ago...and I was not running anywhere near "race pace".    Over the past three months, I've watched as my average times have come down.  Starting my training, I was averaging 8:45 miles, just like usual, and now I am averaging almost a minute faster per mile on my shorter runs (~7:50-7:55)...and this is still not running what I consider a hard "race pace".

While I'm not running nearly as many miles as the elite or hard-core runners, I still managed close to two-hundred miles in both March and April.  I've also noticed that my heart-rates have been much improved.  At some point about half-way into my training, I noticed my average heart-rates had come down significantly.  Usually I averaged about 155 bpm on an normal run.  Now I'm averaging in the 140's, even when running 7:45 - 8:00 pace.  So why all of a sudden are my times so much better and why has my performance improved....especially since I'm not getting any younger?  Well I thought a lot about this and attribute it to a couple of things.  Here's what I've come up with in my unprofessional/non-medical opinion.
  • Adding in a 5th day of running every week.  Not only does this increase my mileage, and limit my rest days, but it adds a back-to-back component on the weekends and has me running the day right after my long runs.  I think this acts as sort of a kick start to my metabolism and performance.  This is sort of what I call the "hardening up" factor.  I equate it to hiking multiple long days in a row on a thru-hike.  Rather than run a long run and then vegetate the next day, I force my body to heal quickly and not get "too comfortable".  I am probably imagining this, but it just seems that it forces my body to keep functioning at a higher performance level.
  • Increased Mileage.  This goes along with the previous comment.  I think the simple act of increasing my mileage is generally a good thing for performance.  This is the first time that I used an "intermediate level" training program.  I felt it was time I graduated from novice.  So far it's paid off.  My peak week this year was 50 miles, 10 miles higher than previous years.  When ultra season begins in June, I'm hoping to up that to closer to 70 miles/week.
  • Pace Style Runs.  I really tried to "push" at least one run each week.  This was usually on one of my shorter Tuesday or Thursday runs.  I made a conscious effort to pick up the pace a bit.  I think that throwing in a day or two of higher intensity pace running each week has made a difference.  For me, a "pace run" isn't "race pace", but it's faster than my normal "comfortable pace".
  • Cross Training.  Historically I've treated the "cross training" day in the training program as a glorified rest day.  I would convince myself that walking around town constituted cross training.  Once in a while, I would do some strength training or go on a day hike, but usually I just sat on my ass.  This meant I basically took Sundays and Mondays my body too much time to sort of, re-sloth.  During my training this year, I've made a concerted effort to cross-train.  Back in March, I bought a new touring bike and have been taking it out at least once a week for long rides.  In addition, I've been riding into school at least 2 days a week and walking into school at least 3 days a week (4 miles round trip).  In general, I've made an effort to walk a lot more too.  Cycling still baffles me a bit as far as overall fitness.  Every friend I have here at school that is an active rider, is rail thin....yet a lot of runners I know, even those that run 40+ miles a week, still have a bit of body fat (myself included).  I've worn my heart-rate monitor while riding and my heart-rate is always much lower than when running, and I always burn less calories.  Generally I average about 130 bpm while riding.  This is certainly in the aerobic fat-burning zone, but even on a 25 mile ride, I burn way less calories than when I run, say, 13 miles.  In light of all of this, I don't really understand why cycling would make a person thinner than a runner...but there still seems to be some truth to it.  I think there is something fundamentally different about the way our bodies burn fat and use energy when cycling...over running.   I think that by adding in this component into my training, it's not only helped me become more fit and thin, but also improved my fitness level.
  • Diet.  For the past few years I've wanted to find a healthy diet that I'm happy with.  Since 2005,  I've become more aware about my genetic predisposition to the risks of heart disease and since tried to improve my overall diet and eating habits.  I tried the vegetarian thing for over a year, and I was pretty miserable.  In addition, it didn't help my cholesterol numbers come down at all.  I haven't really been able to settle in on anything that I've been truly happy and/or excited about.....until recently.   I decided about two months ago, that I wanted to try to shift a large portion of my overall food intake to fruits.  Who doesn't love fruit right?  In addition, I wanted to make an effort to increase my vegetable, and other raw food intake as well.  No, this does not mean I'm a vegan, or a fruitarian, or a raw-foodist.  I still eat fish, some chicken, and grains.  I am not trying a fad, or changing this based on some book I read or video I saw.  It just seemed to be common sense to me....fruits (and vegetables) grow out of the Earth in their natural form...and this is how our body should be fed.  How can eating an orange NOT be healthy?  So, I've been buying a lot of produce lately (mostly fruit) and try to snack on fruit all day.  I eat seeds and nuts too, but try to limit my snacks to good, raw fruits and veggies.  Don't get me wrong...I still eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, still have a daily cup of coffee, and eat a piece of chicken once in a while.  Overall, I've been really happy with how this has worked and how it's made me feel.  It sounds cliche'...but I just feel better.  In addition to simply being healthier, eating more "raw" foods requires more energy for my body to digest.  Cooking food, in a sense, partially breaks it down before you eat it...meaning that your body has to work less.   There are some foods that I have also simply cut out or limited significantly.  In short here are a few notable changes I've made to my diet:
    • Lots of fruit - oranges, tomatoes, apples, plums, grapes, strawberries, lemons, cantaloupe
    • Cut out dairy almost completely.  Not sure why cheese is marketed as healthy because it's terrible for you.  I've cut it out completely as it's very high in fat.  Replaced milk with plain organic soy milk.  Other than a little ice cream treat once in a rare while, a little yogurt, and a little cream in coffee, I try not to do dairy anymore.
    • Replaced a lot of bad fats with good unsaturated fats.  Lots more cold-pressed olive oil, avacados, and raw peanut butter.  Lot less saturated fats in general.
    • Daily lunch salads (usually with lots of tomatoes! - I absolutely love tomatoes)
    • No alcohol.  OK...well almost.  I partake in a glass of wine here and there, and still have a beer rarely, but when I go out with others, I generally have a soda or water now.  In my mind, alcohol really is a sort-of poison for our bodies (especially our livers - mine of which is already at a genetic disadvantage) despite the benefits of a glass of red wine once in a while.  It's also a lot of empty calories.
    • Try to do healthy fish at least two times a week.  At least one serving of fresh sushi a week.
    • Smaller portions.  Not rocket science here....but it's amazing how much we try to cram in our stomachs.
  • Weight.  When I got back from Antarctica, I was in less than ideal shape.  Working in the cold down there made me notably more hungry than normal and I ended up eating quite a bit to stay warm.  It didn't help that the cooks there made us incredible food.  While my BMI value still said I was "normal" I was right up there at the high end.  For my height, a weight of 167lbs was nearly considered "overweight".  I still felt I looked "average", but I knew I needed to slim up a bit.  I wasn't worried though as I always put a few pounds on in the dead of winter and knew the running would burn that off.  Since I started running and have found a happy/healthy diet, I've shed nearly 13 lbs and am down to a much healthier weight of 154 lbs.  I would still like to shed a few more, but I'm not forcing it.  I think my body is coming into a sort of equilibrium.  This 13 pound shedding has certainly improved my running times.  Simple introductory physics tells us that it takes less energy to move less mass.  As I've leaned up, my fitness has improved.  A lot less stress on my joints too.
  • Training Run Variety.   Historically I have had my set training runs.  Set loops or out-n-backs for each distance.  I would look at my schedule to see what I was running that day, and do that particular run.  For this year, I've really tried to mix it up a lot.  Every day, I change my course so that I'm always running a different training run.  This has really helped to keep my runs fresh and exciting.  This has been a huge mental help and kept the long runs from being monotonous.  I think you always run a bit faster when you are simply "more into it".  This also gives me an excuse to play with google maps more....and you all know how much I LOVE playing with maps and geography in general (see "Seed is Planted" post).
  • Setting Goals and Short "Test Races".  Setting tangible goals for myself has always been a strong motivator.  I find it very hard to go out on weekly runs, when I don't have a race in my sights.  Signing up for many big races this year, and signing up early, has given me very real goals to work towards.  This has kept me focused, even during long and trying weeks of school work.  Throwing in a few "test races" along the way has also been a big help.  It makes the wait for the "big race" not so long.  Half way through my training I ran that 10 miler and did surprisingly well.  It felt good to just be running with others in race mode for a change.  This weekend, I ran my second running of a local 10k here as a last little race before the big run next weekend.  I completely shocked myself at how well I performed, and I ran over 5 minutes faster than in 2009 shattering my 10k PR time (see details below).
Well here it is.  I've never been bold in my race goals.  I generally set a conservative goal with a more hopeful secondary goal.  This year I'm taking a risk and setting the bar a bit higher for myself.  My goal for this upcoming Pocono race is to break my previous marathon PR time of 3:39....something I truly didn't think I'd be able to do.  As a secondary goal, I want to try to break 3:30.  This is a very lofty secondary goal, but I think I'm capable of it especially considering my training run times.
  1. Primary Goal:  Break Marathon PR Time of 3:39 (from 2009 Pocono)
  2. Secondary Goal: Break time of 3:30
Wish me luck!

I am adopting a strategy of famous US marathoner Ryan Hall this week...and that is to put the marathon completely out of my mind all week.  Starting Monday morning, I will do my best to not think of the marathon at all until Saturday when I'm finally driving to it.  I am ready to run, I have trained hard, and now I will simply wait and enjoy my last taper week.  When the weekend comes though, I will get fierce and ferocious.  I will hit this race hard and with fervor.  Bring it!

Biedleheimer Sidewinder 10k: A New PR! (Review)
As I mentioned above, I ran a 10k this weekend as a sort of last shakedown of my preparedness.  Being only 10k, I don't feel it was long enough to really negatively impact my marathon taper as I was supposed to run an 8 miler anyway (although some might argue).  I was a bit fired up for this race as I knew from running it in 2009 that it is a fast one.  It's a really fun course along fire roads near Tussey Mountain with an overall negative elevation profile.  The course is actually leg #4 of the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler that is held here in October.  My time from 2009 was 45:53, and I was just hoping to beat that by a minute or two.  When the race started, I headed out at what I thought was a good race pace.  My heart rate was high, but not obnoxious.  At about the half-way point I realized that I was actually in 3rd place overall (of over 50 runners).  I have never been in third place for any race it was pretty exciting...BUT, this is when I realized that I probably went out a bit too fast.  I had actually made the half-way mark in under 20 minutes.  I couldn't believe this.  For 3 years now I've been trying to break 20 minutes on a 5k, and I haven't.  My best 5k time is 20:10...yet today during a 10k, I passed the half-way point in 19:45.  Unreal.   By mile 4.5, I was I obviously went out too fast, and by mile 5, I was struggling quite a bit.  I forced my way through the last mile slowing down a fair amount, and inevitably got passed by a handful of people.  I didn't think that I had any chance of breaking 40 minutes so I eased to the finish once I realized there was no one close behind me.  Little did I know I'd be kicking myself later for that decision.  When the finish was in sight I saw the clock at a distance and it said 39:55.  DOH!  Had I pushed it a little harder at the end, I might have actually broken 40 minutes for a 10k.  Instead, I finished 8th place with a final time and new 10k PR of 40 minutes 32 seconds (40:32).  I still cannot believe this.  This equates to a 6:32 pace.  Needless to say, I was pretty ecstatic with this time, even if I could have maybe broken 40 minutes.  I cannot believe I basically ran my best 5k pace ever, on a 10k course.  According to my running log (, my VO2max for this race was actually 51.2.  I have never broken 50 on any race....ever.  So overall it was a huge success.  The atmosphere was one of a trail run.  Very fun, friendly, and non-comptetive type people....just out to have some fun.  I love this type of run.  Can't wait to do it again next year.

(PICS and official race details - They adjusted times based on age using the WAVA system.  This is why even though I finished 8th, I "placed" 13th.  It's weird, but I only care about my raw time)

Very happy that the running season has begun!


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